As a young block builder, you loved LEGO and would fly through the kits before quickly moving beyond build tutorials to creating your own unique creations using items from around the house.
You loved puzzle games and toys with mechanisms like Mouse Trap and Transfomers. Maybe your parents started to let you take apart broken appliances. Sometimes you were able to fix the appliances, and sometimes, well, it was broken in the first place. Then high school. You found you had an aptitude for math and science. You took geometry and physics and loved the real world applications. Then you joined the FIRST robotics team and realized that this is what you wanted to do.
That is my story. Sound familiar?
The good news: They say when choosing a career to find the intersection of what you love doing, are great at, and what there is a market need for. If design engineering falls into that sweet spot for you, then you are way ahead of most.
The bad news: LEGO sells a lot of bricks.
Allow me to share some of the lessons I wish someone had shared with me on my road from MircroMachines to mega electromechanical assembly mayhem.
Read the McMaster Carr Catalog
This tip really should just be called “gain industry knowledge” but I wanted to make a point.
What is so amazing about the McMaster Catalog is not only the sheer breadth of things that they sell, but also the pictures, descriptions, and explanations. Then when you are done with that, you can move on to the Parker O-Ring Handbook, then the Loctite Adhesive Sourcebook, then a work of classical fiction, then more catalogs. These are cornucopias of free knowledge that they don’t teach you in school. Learn about pipe schedules, fastener types, and sheet metal gauges. Become a sponge, and fill your head with all sorts of interesting things, which will make you the worst person to be put next to at a wedding. The purpose is to develop a broad knowledge of what is available, so that when you are working on a project, you know somewhere in your mind the right piece of hardware exists and can go hunt it down. Gaining industry knowledge is a never ending process as a design engineer, but by getting a baseline you can level up from white belt, which may be enough to get you into the dojo.
Be Prepared to Start Fresh
You may have been the captain of your school’s Truckasaurus design competition…and your school may have beat all the other Truckasauri (plural for Truckasurus) at the national competition. Huzzah!
You should be very proud.
I am sure there were a lot of late nights and bonding and a great slide show at the end. However, the job you are applying for isn’t to design Truckasauri, and the position you are applying for isn’t for a project manager. Your head may be full of knowledge, your heart full of excitement and you feel ready to take the world by storm. On your resume, focus more on the specific skills you gained through the experience, whether that be hands on prototyping experience or CAD experience. Going from being a part of a project like that to working on small widget may feel like going back a step, but in reality it is just a part of the next phase. Think of it this way, if in a video game after you beat the first boss the game was over that would be a pretty boring game. You want to go out and develop more skills so you can take on a boss with more heads that throws flame balls at you even faster. And don’t worry, you will be in way over your head in no time. Someday, when you are the founder and CEO of Truckasauri Corp, you can think back with nostalgia on the long and winding road it took you to get there, and then look out at the charred landscape your army of rogue sentinel Truckasauri has created and think “What have I done?”
Become a CAD Ninja
Solidworks is the number one design tool I use on a day to day basis bar none.
If I was looking to hire someone, and they couldn’t use it, that really limits the amount of work I can off load to them, and conversely, the more they can use it, the more I could offload. SolidWorks has the largest market share, so it is the safest bet but you can get company specific. If you are a student you can get packages cheaply, and start going through the tutorials, or get a free thirty day trial and cram. If you have found this webpage then you are on the right track. Check out Adam O’Hern’s CadJunkie and Matt Perez’s tutorials. Go through the SolidWorks (or equivalent) certification packages. Some of these things cost money, but realize that you you are investing in yourself, and developing a very marketable and needed skill. Then take on a big modeling project. I recommend something with a lot of parts, which demonstrates the ability to model complex assemblies, and maybe with surfaces like your car or bike. Then make an awesome looking 3D rendering. Your resume just got kicked up a notch. BAM! Mastering CAD software is a huge undertaking, particularly given all the add ins and the constantly evolving nature. Do the best you can to gain some general mastery, and consider picking an add in or two. Mastering drawings or sheet metal alone may be enough to land that first job.
Internships and Co-ops
It is unfortunate, but often companies don’t hire interns, because it is believed that the amount of oversight required outweighs the potential work benefits they can provide.
Overworked engineers typically want someone that can jump in immediately, and can be short sighted about any initial time expenditure versus the long term benefits. There can be a huge learning curve in gaining familiarity with a company’s products inner workings, in addition to policies and culture, and internship windows can be short. Some companies will put aside bite sized projects of reasonable size and scope, and generally under the “nice to have” category. These can be things like running tests, designing a piece of equipment to be used internally, or custom tools like a left-handed screwdriver. When internship programs are done properly, they can be hugely mutually beneficial. For the employer, it can be a way to get low cost labor, and vet and train people in a low risk setting, as part of a feeder program for future employees. For the employee, it can be a great way to get your foot in the door, and gain some industry and resume experience. Be willing to work semesters, besides the summer. Consider smaller companies, as they likely need the help more, and have less resources to put toward hiring, which both can work in your favor. Be proactive and reach out to them to ask if they are hiring and what skills they are looking for. Think of the company as a Rhino, their problems are bugs on their back, and you are the bird that is going to eat those bugs.
Know Your Audience and Hustle
Rejection is a part of the process, but don’t stay down for long.
Wake up everyday, put on a Jock Jams volume of your choosing, look in the mirror, and tell yourself affirmations (flexing and finger pointing at yourself is optional). Think of every no as a free lesson, and one more hurdle on the way to a yes (also applies to trying to get a date). I have been on both sides of the hiring equation and it still remains largely a mystery. There is certainly a large amount of luck and good timing involved. Now that things are done almost completely online, the first step of resume filtering is either some advanced algorithm, or a room full of monkeys using the resumes to scratch their butts. Either way, make sure to include the key word “bananas”. Keep trying to find ways to differentiate yourself from the pile. Write personalized cover letters. Always focus on what you can provide to the company, not why you want the job, and utilize spell check to its fullest. I have even mailed in hard copies, and included a plastic laser cut kinetic business card with a geneva mechanism. The hard part can often be just getting that first interview. Then you can show them how hard working, skilled, and pleasant to be around you are.
Although I believe there were a few gems in here, this isn’t about shortcuts and hacks. In life most things worth doing are difficult and take persistence. I truly believe that there is a tremendous amount of talent and drive out there, and a real need for that talent.
My wish would be to continue to find better ways to bridge that gap. Let me leave you with this quote:
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
― Randy Pausch
(feature image via Product Design Management)